The Audio Cynic

In Search of Meaning, Where There Is None

First off, don’t look at the title and image above and think, “oh, great, Leebs is off on his midlife crisis—finally.”

For starters, “midlife” applied to me would mean I expect to reach 125. Right.

There’s no existential angst here. It’s just hard to come up with an image to illustrate an intangible concept. If the cosmos offends thee, imagine something silly and cryptic instead: say, David Lynch, or a box of Lucky Charms.

Here’s what prompted the title: I discovered a charming bit of gibberish on the website of an audio manufacturer. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d discovered gibberish on the website of an audio manufacturer, mind you—but this particular example seemed pleasantly whimsical to me:

“Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts. A small river named Duden flows by their place and supplies it with the necessary regelialia.”

I was hoping that the manufacturer had something of mystical significance to say, but just couldn’t quite manage the leap to a non-native tongue. The ever-rational Malachi Kenney—audio nerd, programmer, political wrangler and occasional Copper contributor— dashed my hopes by pointing out that the text was just a chunk of Lorem Ipsum-ish boilerplate.

Damn.

I was looking for meaning, where there was none.

I think that’s a common human trait, whether it’s a blurry “do you see Abraham Lincoln, or the Mona Lisa?” puzzle, trying to decipher the behavior of a politician or a street-corner schizophrenic, or reading James Joyce. Even something like Lewis Carroll’s  “Jabberwocky”, consciously constructed of nonsense non-words, provokes the reader or listener into attempts at understanding. But where there is no meaning, there can be no understanding.

In the midst of the euphonious babble of  “Jabberwocky”, we struggle to get a sense of the senseless, in this case aided (or confounded?) by John Tenniel’s image of the beast, the Jabberwock.

“Jabberwocky” is particularly exasperating because there are bits of seemingly-tangible meaning, such as the pictured monster, interspersed with things that sound tantalizingly familiar, but really mean nothing: borogroves, Bandersnatch, vorpal sword, galumphing, and so on. It’s like listening to someone speaking in a foreign language where you can extract snatches of sense now and then, but are left with “either they’re ordering dinner, or they just called for a tactical nuclear strike.”

To return to our home turf: I have on occasion read alleged “explanations” of audio technologies that provoked similar feelings in me. They start out with reasonable technical explanations and familiar terminology. Then things get a little loosey-goosey, claims are made of “top-secret and utterly unique technologies previously undiscovered by the sheltered culture of mainstream science,” and it all falls apart—for me, anyway.

I know that there are technologies and discoveries that initially appear to be totally voodoo, and then go mainstream because there is actually something to them. Over the last decades, quantum dots have followed that path, and while I still can’t claim to understand them, there is something there. In the future, I expect blockchain technologies to follow that same path, and prove themselves to be indispensible to modern commerce (unlike the half-baked lab project that is Bitcoin).

If any audio concept is useful in observing the world as a whole, it’s that of signal-to-noise ratio. The trick is to realize that the presence of noise does not guarantee that there is signal.

Sometimes— there is only noise.